Gill Taylor: Back pain like mine can be stopped at source

Prevention, not cure, is often the most cost-effective course for managers, writes our columnist

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

Have you heard of your sacroiliac joint? I have, because mine's inflamed. Are you aware of the iliopsoas muscle? Apparently mine's shortened. It would be unusual for an older office worker who sits down a lot not to have had any back or neck issues, or problems with repetitive strain injuries in the wrists or forearms.

The pain I have endured over the past eight weeks has been really bad. If I wasn't self-employed, I would have taken at least two weeks off because it has impaired my ability to walk. It's been scary and a wake-up call to deal with my tight musculature, poor posture and tendency to sit at my desk for too long without breaks. I'm suffering from the curse of the modern office worker.

Most problems with muscles like these don't come from a lack of strength but a lack of flexibility. Imagine someone with a broken arm, her bent elbow in a cast. When the cast is removed after six or eight weeks, the soft tissues around the elbow will have shortened and the elbow won't straighten. It will take patient stretching over several weeks to restore the range of motion. Similarly, if the hip is kept in a flexed position, such as sitting, for hours every day, day after day, the hip flexors will shorten and shrink, limiting your ability to straighten the hip to its full extent.

According to my (well paid) osteopath, if the hip flexors are tight, they pull down and forward on the pelvis, which tilts the pelvis forward and compresses the lower back. Prolonged standing or sitting in this position increases pressure on the joints of the lower spine, which can contribute to arthritis in those joints.

So those of you who sit all day at work should get moving and stretching. Back pain contributes to 12.5 per cent of working days lost in the UK and is the most common reason for sickness absence: 31 million working days were lost in 2013 because of it.

Health and safety is often an HR responsibility, though we are not experts in it. If staff spend a lot of time at their desks in your workplace, I recommend putting some thought into back-pain risk assessments. For musculoskeletal disorders, getting an ergonomic specialist in can be useful. Prevention is much, much better than cure.

Some simple tips to bear in mind include having the right chair, adjusted correctly, as well as a wrist rest, a foot rest and a document holder, and sitting square-on to your screen rather than sideways. Don't perch on your chair with your foot tucked under you. Take a break every hour and get into the habit of gazing at a distant object when thinking - not at the screen. It can also help if you do stretches at lunchtime and stand up when you take a phone call.

It is important to establish good habits while you are young. Older people should start stretching now and book themselves into a pilates class.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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